pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.1

Content Warnings

None this chapter.



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To Miss Evelyn Saye,

For the transparent courtesy of your recent correspondence, I extend my gratitude to you and your associates. I was greatly disappointed by the lack of a timely reply to the letter I left for you in the great outsider library. I had considered the slim possibility that you did not seek the The Testament of Heliopolis, and had therefore not received my letter. I am glad to discover that my original deduction was correct. One so rarely gets the opportunity to correspond with another real magician, let alone a woman of your calibre, as an equal. Many obstacles stand in the way of open communication, such as mutual suspicion, the inherent danger of our vocation, and basic paranoia. I am delighted you have decided to re-open this dialogue.

However, the content of your letter leaves much to be desired. I had hoped for better relations between us.

The parasitic crisis you describe is highly alarming and completely unacceptable. I am gladdened by the news that the Brinkwood Church is unharmed by these events. I have no quarrel with those people or their way of life. However, these events have nothing to do with me or my work. Such recklessness would be more in keeping with my worries for your development, not the fruit of my own researches. Forgive me for being blunt, but there is no other way to say this: this is akin to something your mother would have done. I cannot but interpret this wild accusation as anything except a sad attempt to warn me about the fallout of your own excesses, while shielding yourself from blame by pinning it on me. I am certain you have convinced your associates, but I am made of sharper materials. For the warning, you have my thanks. For the accusation, my disappointment.

Your inquiry as to the whereabouts of Miss Stack is equally puzzling. Furthermore, it inclines me to believe that you have inherited not only your late mother’s reckless pursuit of power, but also her sadism. We both know what has happened to Amy Stack. I will not dignify the question with an answer.

As to your blunt demand for access to The Testament of Heliopolis, this book is not your property. It is mine. My conditions remain the same as outlined in my previous letter. I am willing to share limited portions of the text, in as safe a manner as possible, in return for custody of my niece.

You write that Lauren is an adult and that this is impossible, but this is pure sentimentality and deflection. You and I both understand that she is not fully in command of her faculties, that she has special requirements and needs, which cannot be fully met here, not by those who do not understand her. You do not understand her, or what she represents, or what she is capable of. Mishandled, she would be very dangerous, and requires special attentions. I urge you to contact my lawyer again, Harold Yuleson, with further correspondence so that we may organize the beginning of negotiations. Do not send—

“Skip the rest of that paragraph, it dissolves into legalese.”

Evelyn interrupted Praem’s reading of the letter. Praem paused, milk-white eyes flicking further down the neatly folded sheet of paper in her hands.

I will warn you now, so as to save you the time,” Praem resumed. Her lilting, sing-song voice was almost enough to bury the meaning of the words. “This letter, the physical object that has been delivered to you by my lawyer, was printed out by him, at his offices. This paper and ink has not touched my hands. Any attempt to use it as a sympathetic focus for magic will result in failure. I urge you not to attempt underhanded attacks on my person, but come to the figurative table where we may discuss how to move forward.

I have greater respect for you than you might assume, Miss Saye. Let us deal as equals, and dispense with any further unpleasantness.

Yours sincerely,
Edward.

Praem finished without fanfare. She stood there for a moment, holding the letter, framed by the soft June sunlight creeping around the edges of the heavy curtains. Dust motes hung in a shaft of light, not far from the hateful thing in her hands. She placed the letter back on the workshop table, next to our copy of the one Evelyn had handed to Nicole, to hand to Edward’s lawyer. She smoothed the cuffs and skirt of her maid uniform, then resumed her habitual poise, straight-backed and staring at nothing with blank, milk-white eyes.

We all stared at the letter like it was a live scorpion. Evelyn let out a grumbly sigh.

Twil bared her teeth and said, “Fucking cunt.”

Evelyn actually laughed, a tiny snort. “Would have put it a bit more delicately myself, but yes. Well said.”

“Should fuckin’ send him a pipe bomb next time. Or an envelope full of anthrax. Is that still a thing?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I doubt that would get past the lawyer.”

Twil gestured at the letter with both hands, rocking back in her chair. “What was the fuckin’ point of this? Like he was gonna say ‘yeah, sorry mate, my bad with the whole mind-eating prawn-worm thing, here’s the book by way of apology’. Fuck. Fuck all of this.”

Raine clucked her tongue and hissed through her teeth. She leaned back too, put her hands behind her head, and got halfway into the process of putting her feet up on the table before Praem stopped her with a sharp glance. She cleared her throat and winked an apology up at Praem. “Gotta agree with Twil here,” she said. “We shouldn’t have made a peep about all this, Evee. Lost the element of surprise here. He’s gonna know we’re coming.”

“There would be no element of surprise either way,” Evelyn said with a sigh. “How many times do you need to hear this? His home is going to be festooned with early-warning systems, some of them probably very much alive. You’re not going to climb a drainpipe and shove a pillow over his face, Raine. Stop thinking about this like jumping a thug in a back alley. Think bigger, both of you.”

Raine blew out a long breath and nodded at the letter. “You think it’s safe to keep that in here?”

“Safe,” said Praem.

“Yes,” Evelyn said. “I’m not a total idiot. Praem checked it when we got it off Nicole. It’s just paper.”

Raine shrugged. “So that part wasn’t a lie, at least. How much of the rest of it you think is true?”

“It’s all lies!” Twil spat. She huffed and stood up, knocking her chair back in frustration. “It’s just bullshit! Can’t believe my parents agreed to this shit too. This was stupid. What the hell has this guy got to say that’s worth hearing, huh?”

Evelyn gave Twil a dark look. “Do I instruct you on how to bite off a rabbit’s head?”

Twil blinked at her. “What?”

Raine laughed, spreading her hands in a shrug.

Evelyn said, “Then don’t instruct me on strategy, unless you have useful suggestions. Sending the letter to Edward Lilburne was the right move.” She reached out with one hand, her maimed hand, missing fingers on full display instead of hidden in the end of her sleeve. She tapped the letter. “This is exactly the kind of response I had hoped for.”

Twil spread her arms. “It’s full of lies!”

I cleared my throat, loudly, then regretted it because everybody looked at me. Rather a paradoxical action, but I felt responsible for this. I hadn’t done anything to stop Evelyn’s plan. None of us had, all week. I toyed with the half-empty mug of cold tea on the table as I spoke. “That’s kind of the point. I think. We can tell what he’s thinking by the kind of lies he tells.”

Evelyn nodded. “Thank you, Heather. At least somebody around here actually pays attention.”

Twil huffed and flopped her arms.

“Also,” I added, “please don’t yell so much. You’re upsetting Marmite.”

I nodded toward the corner of the magical workshop. Twil opened her mouth, about to continue getting pointlessly upset that we weren’t committing terrorism by posting improvised explosive devices to a house we still couldn’t find, but then the meaning of my words filtered through her brain. She fumbled inside her hoodie for her pair of magically modified glasses. Her ones weren’t 3D, just cheap black frames with flat, clear plastic instead of lenses, part of keeping the expenses as low as possible. The magical working was etched in miniature across the frames and down the arms. From a distance of a few feet, they could pass for normal glasses, as long as nobody looked too closely or for too long. The fruit of Evelyn’s recent work.

Twil slipped them on so she could see what I saw. She frowned at the corner of the magical workshop, where the two sofas were wedged together, then tilted her head to one side. “How can you tell?” she asked.

“He sort of hides himself more when he’s feeling threatened or unsafe. It’s okay, Marmite,” I said to the huge spider-squid. “Nobody is angry with you. You’re a good boy.”

Marmite was in one of his now-habitual spots, curled up on the arm of one of the sofas with all his legs tucked under him, a pose that Lozzie had taken to calling the “spider-loaf”. He’d been half-asleep minutes earlier, his metallic cone-eyes drifting open and shut like a dozing cat, his bony tentacles anchoring him to the sofa, the wall, and the pair of spider-servitors in the corner above him. The spider-servitors were his new best friends. They’d taken to following him around the house whenever he moved, though one of them always stayed in here, watching the inactive gateway to Camelot.

We hadn’t established if Marmite and the servitors could actually communicate with each other, but they kept touching, Marmite wrapping them in tentacles, them laying their stingers across him without harm, so we assumed they were talking somehow.

Since Twil had started shouting, Marmite’s eyes were wide open, darting about the room. His shadowy black membranes had fluttered outward, wrapping his pale-furred body in the illusionary shadows.

“Yeah, Twil.” Raine laughed, peeping through her own modified glasses before putting them down on the table again. “Stop scaring the puppy, hey? You’re meant to be the big sister dog.”

Twil sighed. “He’s not mine.”

Praem walked over to Marmite. She didn’t need a pair of novelty glasses to see pneuma-somatic flesh. She reached down and gave Marmite scritches behind where his ears might have been if he was a canine.

“Good boy,” said Praem. “Good boy. Good boy. Good boy.”

Slowly but surely, Marmite relaxed. He reeled in his membranes. His eyes grew heavy. Was that a purring I heard on the air? No, just my imagination.

“Alright,” Twil said, removing the glasses from her face again. She gestured at the letter from Edward Lilburne. “I still don’t get this though, seriously. Like Raine said, he’s warned now, right? You don’t warn somebody you’re after, not until the last possible second. We gotta fuckin’ smack the guy as soon as we figure out which house is his, yeah?”

She pointed at the dozens of photographs and Google Map printouts stuck to the wall behind Evelyn. Every single one was of a different house. Some of them were small and suburban, from the very edge of Stockport. Others were large, rural, rambling things on the edges of villages or deep in the forest around Brinkwood. Some of them were crossed out with big red Xs through them, others lay in a pile on the table, next to a brand new Ordnance Survey map already covered in Evelyn’s notes.

Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away, drumming her fingers on the table.

Twil stared at her for a second, then glanced at me and Raine. “We are gonna figure out which house is his, right? It can’t be that hard now. Isn’t Nicky supposed to be on this?” Twil forced an awkward laugh. “Can’t be that many houses between Stockport and Brinkwood.”

“Hidden house,” Praem intoned. “House, hidden. Housey. Hiddeny.”

Twil stared at her. “Oh fuck off. Seriously?”

I winced.

Evelyn cleared her throat again and relocated her dignity. “The decision to send the letter to Edward Lilburne was taken before we ran into difficulty pinpointing the house. The purpose stands, and it’s a good one.”

“I’m sorry, Evee, but I’m lost as well,” I said. “We have given up the element of surprise by letting him know about the whole thing with the parasites. I understand the need to get inside his head, to ‘know your enemy’, but … you’re acting like this is a win of some kind. I don’t see it.”

Evelyn turned a narrow-eyed look on me. But she smiled one of those thin and satisfied smiles, Evelyn at her devious best. It sent a shiver up my spine.

“I want him afraid,” she said.

The shiver turned hot.

Twil huffed, rolled her eyes, and slouched like the grumpy teenager she was, as if Evelyn had explained in great detail why Twil was not allowed to go out clubbing tonight. She took a step toward the kitchen door and said, “Screw it, I need another sausage roll.”

We were gathered in the magical workshop, safe and sound in Sharrowford, a week and two days after the incident with Nicole wandering through the woods, the magical infovore parasites, and the journey into Hringewindla’s shell.

We’d spent that week hunting a mage. Well, Evelyn had. But we still didn’t have our prey in sight.

==

It had been a relatively quiet week by the standards of my life those days. That was a blessing, because after the emotional overload and physical exhaustion of that weekend, between the duel and meeting Hringewindla, I was ready to curl up into a ball and go to sleep for a month. Sadly, my powers of abyssal biology did not extend to a bear-like hibernation period, let alone packing on the necessary layer of fat, and even if they had, we had a mage to hunt and university essays to turn in, so I settled for a nice long twelve hours of merciful unconsciousness. I was so worn out that I barely recalled the journey home. I remembered the greenish soapstone coin clutched in one fist, Marmite crammed into the boot of Raine’s car, us leaving the Hoptons with promises of spirit-seeing 3D glasses and more regular coordination.

Jan and July had stayed over that night, the former on a sleeping bag in Lozzie’s room and the latter sleeping sat upright in the workshop, with Praem. None of us had the energy to care. Jan was in absolutely no fit state to be going anywhere with all that cannabis in her system, and Lozzie was delighted by the notion.

Poor Kimberly was so embarrassed and apologetic that I actually had to sit down with her the next day, in her bedroom, to stop her from offering to move out.

“It was irresponsible and stupid and I’m- I- I don’t deserve—”

“Kim, stop apologising,” I told her. I’d even squeezed her hand. “You didn’t even fully understand what we were doing. And you can’t be expected to act as our backup if we don’t explain to you in the first place. And even then, that would be terribly unfair. I’m … well, not angry with Lozzie, she did turn up to help, but … ”

Kimberly pulled an awkward smile. “She was high.”

I sighed and nodded. “She was high, as a kite. I don’t think it made that much difference in the end, but … ” I shook my head at the absurdity. “I’m not pleased with her for that, or with Jan for starting and encouraging it. What if Edward had made a move against the house? But, again,” I hurried to add, “that’s not your responsibility. Just … refuse to share, if this happens again. Please.”

“July was sober,” Kimberly offered, her eyes a haunted shadow. “I wasn’t about to say no to her.”

I sighed and nodded and patted her hand. This was about Lozzie and Jan, not the mousy and timid supplier who could be so easily pressured into anything.

“I screwed up,” she repeated for the tenth time that morning, trying and failing to look me in the eyes. “It was my fault. I’m the adult here. I should have … I should … ”

“Don’t move out, Kim,” I said. “Nobody wants you to do that.”

But we had so many other things to think about and prepare for — and Lozzie had helped, even if she was irresponsible. I let that difficult conversation fall by the wayside. I let it slide, refused to find the courage and strength to confront her over this, not least because I wasn’t sure what I was confronting her about. She hadn’t exposed Tenny or Whistle to the smoke, she hadn’t hurt herself or started an incident of some kind. There was nothing wrong with what she’d done — just when she’d done it.

Could I ask Lozzie to practice constant vigilance? Was that fair?

But I sure could have a proper go at Jan. She was much, much older than us, if my suspicions were correct. She had, in a way, been the responsible adult in charge.

Perhaps that’s why she and July made themselves so scarce after that. Jan and Lozzie were very giggly with each other in the early hours of the following morning, though Tenny was in the room with them so I was safe to assume nothing was going on that I shouldn’t have overheard. But then as soon as the house was waking up and we were all finding our collective feet again, Jan thanked us all profusely, gave us seven entirely different contact numbers for her, one of which was a French phone number, and assured us that she wasn’t leaving Sharrowford any time soon, lots of work to do — for us, mostly — but she needed to get out of our hair and change her clothes and whatnot, they do smell of weed smoke now, and so on and so on, don’t worry about her, she and July can take care of themselves — until she was backing out of the door and almost tripping over her massive white coat.

“Can I come with!?” Lozzie had asked.

Lozzie had come bouncing past me in the front room as we’d been awkwardly seeing off Jan and July. She was still in her pajama bottoms beneath her poncho, tugging on her shoes with a little hippity-hop motion, not waiting for an answer. She almost crashed right into Jan with sheer exuberance. The terrified look on Jan’s face was almost worth the trouble. July caught Lozzie in one arm and Jan by the scruff of her neck, and then settled both girls safely back on their feet again before they could go tumbling down in a tangle of limbs.

Lozzie was all giggles and a quick thank you hug for July. The demon host didn’t care.

Jan made a show of dusting herself off, though she hadn’t actually touched the floor at any point. “Well, um, I wouldn’t be … opposed, but uh … well. You know.” She cleared her throat and looked at me.

I resisted the twin urge to sigh and put my hands on my hips. I didn’t want to be some kind of disciplinary ogre.

Lozzie turned to me, giggling and wiping hair back out of her face. “Please please please! Only ‘till after lunchtime! And then if I know where Janny is staying I can just poppity-pop over there without walking and stuff!”

“‘Janny’?” I murmured, at the exact same moment Jan turned to her and said, “Janny?”

Evelyn’s voice came from the kitchen doorway, thick with the kind of exhaustion that sleep hadn’t touched. “I think that’s a grand idea.”

I turned to see Evelyn leaning heavily on her walking stick, a mug of strong black coffee in her other hand. She never drank coffee, not like me. Evelyn was much more of a tea woman. But that morning, the morning following the journey into Hringewindla’s shell, she looked like she needed a good cup of coffee. Black bags under her eyes, skin sallow and pale, almost grey with stress, hair limp and dry, back more hunched than usual. Never mind caffeine, she looked like she needed a shot of adrenaline and a dose of codeine. I half-suspected she’d already dipped into her secret stash of hard painkillers.

I cleared my throat. “Evee? But, I mean, Lozzie, going out alone, it’s … ”

Evelyn ran her tongue over her teeth beneath her lips, then took her time sipping from her cup of coffee. “What? Too dangerous?”

I bit my lip, feeling terribly awkward. “Maybe. What if something happens?”

Evelyn just raised her eyes past me.

“Oh,” said Jan. “Oh, of course, Lozzie would be safe with us. Isn’t that right, July?”

“Mm,” July grunted. She sounded so long-suffering, so done with this, but I had no doubt as to her sincerity.

“Evee,” I whispered. “We’ve only just met these two.”

“And Lozzie has befriended January.”

“Just Jan, please,” said Jan. Evelyn cleared her throat and gestured a casual apology with her mug.

Praem clicked out of the kitchen, carrying Lozzie’s mobile phone in one hand and a twenty pound note in the other. “Good catch,” she said to July as she passed, and then pressed the phone and the money into Lozzie’s hands.

July frowned down at Praem. “Perhaps.”

Praem held Lozzie’s hands for a moment, until Lozzie was paying full attention to her.

“After lunchtime,” she said.

Lozzie nodded hard enough to send her hair flying everywhere again. She hugged Praem, totted over to hug me, and then did this playful air-hug thing with Evee, which made Evelyn frown and blush and nod along. Then she raced upstairs to hug Tenny and pet Whistle.

Two minutes later she was out of the front door in July’s wake, chattering to Jan about turtles. I watched them go. Lozzie turned back and waved to me when they reached the garden gate, just before Praem closed the front door.

“She’ll be just fine,” I said, mostly to myself.

Praem looked directly at me. White eyes bored into mine. “Jan is good.”

I sighed and couldn’t help myself. “Jan is a con artist and, well, sort of a coward. But so am I, I suppose. Though July isn’t. Oh, damn it all, Evee,” I said as I turned back to her. “Your paranoia has rubbed off on me.”

But when I turned back to Evelyn, she was staring at the closed front door like a lizard peeking out from beneath a rock. Her eyes held a cold blade, buried deep, briefly exposed. She blinked and the moment passed.

“Lozzie will be fine, I’m certain of that,” she said. “If the worst was to happen, she can always just … poof.” Evelyn smiled awkwardly.

“Evee. Evee, what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that Lozzie just made a real friend. Maybe more. Maybe a friend with benefits, who knows. That’s none of my business though.” Evelyn took another long sip from her coffee, avoiding my eyes.

I let her words hang in the air for a moment, unanswered, then said, “And?”

Evelyn sighed heavily and gave me a guilty glare. “And it’s to our advantage if their friendship continues. Alright? Jan and July are trustworthy. Listen to me say that, Heather. I never thought I’d say words like that. Bloody hell, we left those two alone in this house with only Kimberly to stand between them and the entire contents of my workshop. And you know what?”

“I-I’m sorry, Evee, I think I got the wrong end of the stick, I thought maybe you were—”

“They didn’t touch a single thing. I checked. Not a page out of place.” Evelyn swigged her coffee this time, then pulled a face as she got a mouthful of dregs. “Heather, we took them Outside, we let them sleep in this house. Either they’re playing a very long and very clever game, far beyond our level, or we’ve just met a trustworthy mage. I want that woman on our side. I could probably buy her loyalty with money, certainly, but this is different. If that means encouraging Lozzie to … ” Evelyn cleared her throat and gestured with her empty mug. Praem caught the mug before Evelyn could slop the dregs out of the bottom and onto the floor, then stepped through into the kitchen to go wash it up.

I cleared my throat, blushing before I even said the words. “I don’t think they’re actually having a, you know. Sexual relationship.”

“And it would be none of our fucking business if they are,” Evelyn snapped.

“Yes, I-I couldn’t agree more. Absolutely. None of our business.”

“Except Jan is much older. I think.” Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “God damn it.”

“You know that Lozzie came back from Outside with a hickey once, yes? I think she’s capable of being responsible for herself.”

Evelyn gave me a look.

“I’ll talk to her,” I added with a little sigh. “Just to be sure. That she’s being safe.”

Evelyn sighed again, shook her head, and said, “You wanted me to be a strategist, Heather. This is a good strategic move. I want Jan on our side.”

“You’re really good at this, Evee.” I meant it, too. “I’ll talk to Lozzie, make sure she isn’t getting in too deep. Even if that’s kind of absurd, considering where she goes half the time. More importantly, how are you feeling, after yesterday?”

“Eh,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ll live.”

Lozzie kept her word. She returned shortly after lunchtime, by appearing around the doorway of the magical workshop while Evelyn was making plans, much to my unspoken relief. I should have known better than to worry. This was Lozzie’s home now, whatever friends she made elsewhere.

Jan and July didn’t drop entirely off the radar, which was also a relief, though a mixed one. I’d half expected them to up and vanish now that July’s duel with Zheng was over and done with, friendship with Lozzie or not. But they didn’t leave Sharrowford or ignore our calls. Lozzie went to visit them again a few days later, though I gathered they’d moved out of the tiny little bedsit flat and into somewhere less filthy and depressing. They didn’t need the camouflage anymore, not from the ragged remains of the Eye cult, and not from us either.

“Where are they staying now?” Evelyn asked Lozzie. She made zero attempt to sound casual.

Lozzie tapped the side of her nose and winked, so broadly that she should have been on stage in a Christmas pantomime. “I’m not supposed to tell!” she chirped.

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. I suppose I would do the same.”

But Jan returned Evelyn’s calls — and mine. In fits and starts, around the more pressing emergency of pinpointing Edward Lilburne’s house — and the mundane pressures of wrapping up Sharrowford University’s exam and coursework season — we began to coordinate the difficult process of figuring out how to contact the remnants of the Eye Cult and call them in from the cold. Jan said it might take a while, a couple of weeks to talk to them all, to explain what we might be able to offer. She and Evelyn talked money.

They also talked about Badger, and included me.

“We can’t move forward until Nathan is out of the hospital,” Jan said over the phone. She’d opted for a video call, perhaps to show good faith. All we could see behind her neat little face and fluffy black hair was bland beige walls and heavy curtains. Raine was certain that it was some kind of long-stay hotel.

Raine peered over Evelyn’s shoulder, butting in. “Metal plate goes in his head on Friday. They reckon he’ll be out next week, if it goes well. Which it better.”

“Yes, I’m well aware.” Jan pulled a too-sweet smile. “I’ve been to visit him again, to make sure he’s not about to run off or something. We get him on his feet after he’s discharged, then he’s our living proof that you can help them, that you’re not going to spirit them away to meet their doom in the spheres beyond. All that.”

What we didn’t discuss was my request for a doll-body, for Maisie. Not yet. I had important things to ask, and I didn’t want to ask them over the phone, with everyone listening.

Regardless of the secret, hidden realities of the supernatural world, full of mages and monsters and giant snail-creatures buried beneath the woods, it was still assessment period at Sharrowford University. Raine had another exam to sit that week. I had an essay to finish, edit, footnote, and proofread. Evelyn trundled back and forth to campus several times, to turn in work she’d already completed to absolute perfection. She really was brilliant, at anything she turned her mind towards, even if she couldn’t see it.

I was putting off a very difficult conversation with my mother. On Wednesday of that week, she left a message on my phone; I think I was snuggled in Raine’s lap at the time, talking about nothing in particular. My mother wanted to know when I was planning to come home for the summer, after term ended on the 14th of June. I called her back two days later, at a time of day when I knew she’d be at work. I left a message saying I wasn’t sure yet.

Of course I was sure. I wasn’t going anywhere that summer.

My childhood home wasn’t really home anymore. My home was with everyone else, here.

That was far from the only difficult conversation left unspoken during that slow and strange week of psychological recovery. We didn’t really talk much about what had happened with Hringewindla. Evelyn tried to gather us together for a basic run-down a couple of days later, but everyone was so scatterbrained and distracted, and Evelyn was eager to focus on her new work, on the hunt. Sevens re-assumed her blood-goblin mask and her clingy, scratchy, almost bitey physical affection for me, and I didn’t have the strength of mind to ask her about her beautiful and alien war-form, Hastur’s Daughter, or about the moments of silver-tongued anger she’d displayed. I let sleeping dogs lie. Not a smart move. But then again, I’ve never claimed to be smart.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was filled with a secret tension that I couldn’t quite identify. It was like walking across shifting sands, feeling the grains adjust around each footstep, yet knowing that deep beneath the earth, whole landslides and hidden earthquakes of sand gathered, ready to upend the landscape.

Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was shell shocked after Hringewindla, the Church, all of it, not to mention Raine duelling with Zheng.

That was one source of solid, unshakeable comfort — Raine and Zheng.

==

On that very first night after the journey down into Hringewindla’s shell, when I slept for twelve hours wrapped in my tentacles like an octopus ball, I woke up in the small hours of the morning to find Sevens nestled against my front beneath the sheets, like a sleepy marsupial. Half-asleep and feeling comfy, I cuddled her in the dark. But then I saw that Zheng was flat on her back at the edge of the bed, which was how she usually slept — but there was Raine, between us, one hand casually flung across Zheng’s iron-hard abdominal muscles.

It was the first time I’d seen such casual touch from them.

Some ineffable barrier between them had finally broken down, and I don’t think either of them understood exactly how it worked. Over the next few days they began to share strange, private glances, more open than before, Raine grinning with her usual rakish cockiness, Zheng sharp and dark and brooding. An unfamiliar observer would have seen nothing different from the way they used to look at each other, all challenge and passive aggression. But to me it was plain as day, a non-verbal conversation they’d been stopped from having all this time, until they’d shared blade and blood together.

On Saturday morning, almost a week later, I happened to wake up very early, plagued by the physical necessity of a full bladder and the June sunlight peeling back the curtain with white-yellow fingers. I would have stumbled to the bathroom and back, perhaps dragging Sevens with me, wrapped in my tentacles, or perhaps leaving her there after some gentle untangling — except, Raine and Zheng were missing. Ape instinct and abyssal drive agreed that this was very strange, so I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, left Seven-Shades-of-Sleepy-Leech to cuddle a pillow full-body style, and ventured out in the early-morning glow to go find the other two angles of my mutual triangle.

I discovered them by following the growled comments and occasional flesh-on-flesh impacts floating up into the kitchen from the open door of the cellar.

For a moment after I entered the kitchen, I stood frozen, hoodie dragged on skew-whiff, draped in shadow as the morning sunlight burned outdoors, like a tiny mouse on the threshold of leaving her desert cave. I put a hand over my mouth, eyes going wide.

Slam-thump, slap. Zheng, growling in deep appreciation. Raine laughing, then heaving for breath.

Another three impacts, quick and hard. Zheng grunting. Happy. Very happy.

“Oh my goodness,” I whispered behind my hand, heart hammering against the underside of my rib cage. I didn’t know if I should feel betrayed or aroused or start laughing. “Oh my goodness, what are you two doing down there? Why in the cellar!?”

“Sparring.”

Praem’s voice rang out from the shadows at the other end of the kitchen. I was already primed to go off like a tripwire, so I jumped about a foot in the air, toes dancing across the kitchen flagstones, yelping behind my hand. My tentacles fanned out, grabbing a chair, the edge of the table, the worktop, anything they could reach.

Praem was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, reading a book, fully dressed in her maid uniform, with her hair pinned up. Between the deep shadows of the early morning and the rather distracting sounds from below, I hadn’t noticed her sitting there. A pair of milk-white eyes stared back at me.

“Praem!” I hissed. “Don’t make me jump like that! I-I didn’t see you there, I was … distracted by … ”

Slap-slap, smack. They were still at it.

“Sparring,” Praem repeated.

“ … oh!” My eyes went wide. I blushed all over. “Oh, sparring. Like fighting. Fighting, yes. I thought they were … well … maybe … you know.”

Praem stared at me, impassive and unreadable. I pulled a face like I’d bitten into a lemon.

Raine’s voice floated up from the open cellar door. “Heather? Heather, that you up there?”

I stared at Praem, feet glued to the floor. The doll-demon stared back at me.

“What do I do?” I hissed.

“Go watch,” Praem said, and then looked down, back at her book.

“Heather?” Raine called again.

“Oh, fine,” I whispered. I unstuck my feet, crossed my arms, and stalked across the kitchen, tentacles trailing after me. “But you better not be naked together down there. Not that I have any right to stop you. Just … should have … invited me … ”

My words trailed off to less than a whisper. There was no way I could say that out loud, not with Praem sitting right there.

I ventured down into the stale, cool air and bare red brick of the cellar. The cold flagstone steps leeched the heat through my socks, making me curl my toes up tight. Daylight faded as I descended, unwilling to join me in the depths. I hadn’t been down here in weeks and weeks, not since before Badger had slept down here, having night terrors about the Eye and awaiting pneuma-somatic brain surgery.

The remains of his brief stay were still there — an uncomfortable looking camp-bed piled with a few sheets and a lumpy pillow, a neat tower of books on the floor next to it, and one of the televisions dragged down from upstairs. He had needed every distraction he could get.

I didn’t like the reminder of what we’d done, even if I had saved him in the end.

As I reached the bottom of the steps, Raine’s head appeared around the bannister. She was flushed and sweating, breathing hard, glowing with physical exertion. She beamed at me and said, “Hey, you!”

“Hello and good morning yourself,” I murmured. I kept my arms folded, though I wasn’t sure why. Raine leaned in and kissed me on the forehead. I tutted and half-heartedly ducked away. “Raine, you’re so sweaty. What on earth are you … two … ah.”

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

My words trailed off as I reached the cellar floor and finally understood what my lovers were doing with each other.

Between the thick support beams for the house, they’d unrolled a number of exercise mats across the ancient flagstone floor, covering up the remains of dozens of magic circles. Zheng was wearing nothing except a pair of shorts and a thin t-shirt, her rippling muscles coated with sweat, red-brown skin glistening in the light of the two bare bulbs hanging overhead. I noticed that beneath the t-shirt, her chest was tightly bound with a long strip of cloth, to keep things in place, so to speak. Her hair was swept back with grease and sweat, little droplets running down her neck. A lazy, toothy smile greeted me as I involuntarily ran my eyes up and down her body. I swallowed and blushed and looked away.

Raine wasn’t any easier on my sleepy libido. She was in her exercise gear, the outfit she normally only wore to the gym, tight black spats and a sports bra beneath an equally tight top. She bounced on the balls of her bare feet, as if she didn’t want to stop moving.

“We’re sparring,” she said, shooting me a wink and a grin. “Hey, sorry for not waking you. We were both just already up. You looked nice and comfy with Sevens, so.” Raine shrugged. “You hear the good news yet?”

“I … sorry, what?”

“Got a call from the hospital, in the night. Badger got the plate in his skull, no complications.”

“Oh,” I said, totally overwhelmed in more ways than one. “That’s … good. Yes.”

Raine’s grin got wider. “Wanna watch us?”

I blinked at her, wide-eyed. Raine struggled not to laugh. Zheng chuckled.

“I-I mean, I’m not going to say no,” I stammered. I took a few tentative steps deeper into the cellar, toward their makeshift sparring ring. The air smelled of dust, but also the hot spice of feminine sweat and the heady scent of Zheng’s furnace-like skin. “That would be an obvious lie. Yes, of course I’d love to watch my two girlfriends getting sweaty and punching each other. Of course.” I huffed as Raine laughed again. “I thought you were … you know.” I murmured those last two words, blushing and half-hiding behind the end of my sleeve as I looked at the floor.

Raine and Zheng shared a glance.

“Uhhhh,” said Raine. “Thought we were doing what now?”

Zheng purred. “Shaman?”

“I … I thought … ” I hiccuped. “Oh, for pity’s sake, I thought you were doing it.”

Raine snorted. Zheng tilted her head, then chuckled low in her throat. I waved both of them off, hunching my shoulders, and said, “I mean, not that it’s any of my business if you are.”

“‘Course it’s your business,” Raine said, nudging me in the side with her elbow. She caught my eye when I tried to look away, then caught my chin in one hand. Suddenly serious, she said, “Hey, Heather. Of course it’s your business.”

“I … I suppose.” I couldn’t keep the blush off my cheeks.

“Not that you get a veto or something. But you got a right to know. Maybe watch, if you wanna.”

I stared at Raine, wide-eyed and dry mouthed, then hiccuped again. “Oh, damn it. I can’t think about this right now. I’m sorry. I got it wrong.”

“Yeah, just sparring.” Raine cracked a grin and ruffled my hair. I didn’t make any effort to fix it, I already had wild bed-head.

Zheng rumbled low in her throat again, rolling her half-naked shoulders, and asked, “Are we going to fuck, little wolf?”

I felt like my head was about to catch fire. I think I whined.

Raine laughed and stepped back onto the exercise mats. She stretched both arms above her head, working out the tension locked within her muscles. I struggled not to stare. “Dunno. Who’d be on top? No, wait, don’t answer that. Gotta be me.”

“Mmmmmmmm,” Zheng purred. She stared Raine down, as if daring her to lunge.

Raine shot me a wink. “Seriously though, Heather, I dunno if Zheng and I are like that. But this?” She raised her fists and rolled them back and forth, like an early 20th century cartoon boxer. “This is better than sex with Zheng. Wanna see?” She raised one knee, like she was about to deliver a kung-fu kick to Zheng’s midsection. Zheng flowed aside, an easy dodge, even though Raine didn’t actually lash out with the implied attack.

“I … I mean, y-yes, but … ” I was shaking my head, still lost. “Why are you doing this down here?”

“We make a lot of noise, shaman,” said Zheng.

Raine jerked a thumb at Zheng. “Can hardly take her to the gym. Snapback effect only goes so far.”

I blinked at her. “Snap what now?”

“Snapback effect. What does Evee call it? The thing that happens in people’s minds to explain magic, when they see it.”

“Oh, yes, I know what you mean. What does that have to do with going to the gym?” I eyed Zheng up and down briefly, then swallowed without meaning to. “Oh.”

Raine laughed. “Yeah. See her in a dark alleyway or racing through the night, a bystander will fill her in as something else. But if I took her down the uni gym to go lifting together, right out in the open? She’d be all over instagram in about twenty minutes, for all the wrong reasons.”

“Huh,” Zheng grunted, a snort through her nose.

Raine cocked an eyebrow at her, hands on her hips. “That bother you, big girl? You wanna show off those muscles to the world?”

“Only to the shaman,” Zheng said. “And you.”

Raine did a little theatrical bow. I blushed so hard I had to turn away and take a deep breath to steady myself and slow my heartbeat.

“Yes … but … why … ” I struggled for a quick subject change. “Why in sight of all of this?”

I gestured around the cellar with one hand and two tentacles, at some of the most gruesome and inexplicable magical artefacts that Evelyn kept in the house — the wire-mesh cage which contained the unrotting corpse of the demon-possessed rabbit which had saved us in the library of Carcosa, the mysterious pair of empty coffins along the back wall, the ugly piece of twisted metal sculpture sitting on a workbench and covered in ancient bloodstains. And the most recent addition to the room: the chair to which we had tied Stack when we’d debated her fate. Raine and Zheng had chosen to spar amid all this magical detritus, not to mention the sagging, empty wine racks and the boiler gurgling softly to itself in the corner.

Raine glanced about, hands on her hips. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Wizard spoor,” Zheng said. “You live surrounded by this, shaman. No need to look away.”

“It’s just old junk,” Raine said. She winked at me. “Hey, seriously, pull up a chair, watch a while. You might learn a thing.”

Zheng bared her teeth at Raine. “You want more, little wolf?”

Raine ran a hand through her own hair and cocked her head up at the towering, half-naked demon host. “Always,” she purred right back.

“I-I think if I stay and watch, the only thing I’m liable to learn is how embarrassed I have to feel to pass out … ”

I trailed off as both women turned to look at me, both of them amused in their own ways, Raine teasing and suppressing a smirk, Zheng dark and intense as her eyes cut through me. I swallowed a hiccup, groped for a chair with a tentacle, and fell into it like a mouse paralysed before a snake.

Raine shot me a wink. “Good girl.”

“Raine!” I whined. I crossed my arms and coiled my tentacles around my tummy, but that didn’t help.

She laughed and bounced on the balls of her feet, throwing lazy punches toward Zheng, shadow-boxing. “How about we give Heather a little demo, yeah? Let me hit you again?”

Zheng answered by spreading her arms and grinning wide, showing her shark-toothed grin.

So I curled up in the old wooden chair, hand over my mouth, watching my lovers showing off their bodies to each other. Raine and Zheng’s sparring didn’t look anything like the duel they’d had out in Camelot; for a start, Zheng wasn’t moving at full speed, and Raine didn’t have her knife. It was all very stop-start, showing off strikes and lunges and the beginnings — but not the follow-throughs — of throws and mat-pins. Zheng allowed herself to get punched, a lot, but never landed anything fully on Raine in return, no closed-fist strike that would have sent Raine’s head spinning or shattered her ribs.

I got the distinct impression that this was not really a practical exercise at all. It was pure pleasure, expressed in fragments of formal structure, in the flow and knowledge of fighting. And not for my benefit. This was for them, not for my sake, even if I was watching. I couldn’t have joined in even if I’d wanted to. Oh, certainly, if I’d used my tentacles I probably could have done something creative and violent, but that wasn’t the point. The point was play.

Though, I won’t lie. I enjoyed it very much as well, and not only because they were having so much fun.

==

Evelyn didn’t waste a single day that week before she began the hunt for Edward Lilburne’s house.

I hadn’t really agreed with the plan to send him a letter, but by the time Evelyn explained to the rest of us what she was already doing, the process was well under way. While we were wrapped up in our own recovery, or in each other, or in university work, Evelyn was working on the problem. Exhausted, sallow-eyed, shaky as if she was malnourished, the price of her true magic down there in Hringewindla’s shell weighed heavily on her, but she moved quicker than anybody else.

On the morning following our encounter with Hringewindla — while I’d been sleeping off the effects of stitching together a giant pneuma-somatic rooster and conversing with an Outsider cone-snail the size of a football stadium — Raine had taken Nicole to find her car, on the edge of Stockport. Praem and Evelyn had tagged along. They’d located the car, mercifully untouched and right where Nicole had left it in a Church graveyard. Then they’d followed Nicole back to her apartment in Sharrowford. Evelyn had retrieved the bundle of stolen documents and computer files that Nicole had taken from Yuleson’s offices.

Evelyn hadn’t even risked bringing those inside the house; on the way home, they’d driven out to a little isolated stretch of woodland, and had themselves a brief bonfire in an old metal rubbish bin.

“Incineration is always the best way,” she had explained to me once they’d all gotten home.

“Kill it with fire,” said Praem.

Evelyn had cleared her throat at that suggestion. “I wouldn’t go that far, but yes. When a mage screws up — really screws up — just burn everything. It’s safer that way. Safer than allowing the contagion to spread. That’s one thing my mother had correct.”

“I’m just sad I didn’t get to meet Nicky’s dog,” I said.

“Good doggo,” said Praem. “Very fluff.”

Evelyn purchased two fresh Ordnance Survey maps, to replace the one of Sharrowford that was covered in red ink and her own scrawled notations. But these two showed the countryside between Stockport and Brinkwood, every last little copse of trees and swell of hillside. Praem helped her clear off the table in the magical workshop for this new and challenging project. The maps took pride of place.

By halfway through Tuesday, after consulting with Nicole over the phone, she had marked out a snaking area between Stockport and Brinkwood, in red — the maximum range that Nicole could have reached on foot, while under the influence of the parasite, between the time she’d left her car and the time she had arrived at Geerswin Farm.

By the end of Wednesday, Evelyn had a list of houses. Every residence, suburban or rural, farm or isolated house, inside her hypothetical Nicole-rambling range. She printed out street view images from Google Maps and started pinning each house up on a board behind the table in the magical workshop. The ones she couldn’t identify online, she sent Nicole to take pictures of.

“Evee, are you certain she’s okay being involved in all this again?” I’d asked.

Evelyn snorted. “She’s a detective. This is a mystery. She’s in her element.”

Raine peered over the table, leafing through the houses. “How we gonna narrow this down? Have Zheng go knock on every door?”

“The old fashioned way. Nicole wants to help with that. Verifying owners, that sort of thing. The moment we get one that doesn’t add up, we’ll … figure out the next step.”

I picked up one printout, of a lovely little cottage somewhere in the countryside near Brinkwood. “What about Lozzie’s description of the place? It should have a gravel driveway, and a statue of a naked woman in the garden. Apparently.”

Evelyn sighed and took the printout from me, placing it back with the others, as if I had disturbed some specific ritual order. “None of these have anything like that. But it could be camouflaged in some other way. Or he could have had the place redesigned since Lozzie saw it.” She tapped the red area of her map. “If it’s in here, we’ll find it.”

“Then what?” Raine asked with a smirk. “We gonna send him a pipe bomb?”

Evelyn and I shared a look at that. We both smiled, in slightly different ways.

Raine’s eyebrows climbed and she said, “Hey, whoa there, you two. I’m all up for improvised explosive devices, but I wasn’t being serious. Unless you think that’ll actually work?”

Evelyn snorted. “Heather and I spoke about this. No. I don’t think we’re going to send him a bomb. We’re going to try the opposite.”

Raine and I both frowned. “What’s the opposite of a bomb?” Raine asked. “Hey, that sounds like a riddle!”

“The opposite of a bomb,” said Evelyn, “is a diplomatic missive.”

“Evee?” I said.

Raine nodded sagely, as if this made perfect sense. “Right. Bore him to death. I’ll get printing out the whole of one of those old-school websites where everything is one long paragraph about lizard people and the royal family. Heather, you go to the library and find the worst piece of literary theory you can. We’ll combine both.”

“I am being serious,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Oh?” Raine spread her arms. “I assumed you were having a laugh, because what the fuck, Evee? You’re gonna find this guy’s house just so you can send him a letter?”

“No,” Evelyn huffed. “I’ve already sent the letter.”

Raine and I both stared at her.

“Evee, what?”

“Yes, um, how?” I asked.

“Via his lawyer. Look, I’ve sent him the letter, then I’m going to find his house. Then we’re going to … corner him. In that order.”

I couldn’t help but notice the pause before Evelyn had said ‘corner him’.

We’d made Evelyn show us her own copy of the letter she’d sent, and I had to admit, it was a masterpiece of double-speak and careful wording. She’d raised each topic without actually giving anything away, radiating aggression in every line, browbeating and insulting without ever being direct. She could be terribly underhanded when she needed to be. It was quite impressive.

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine sighed. “I’m glad you’re on our side, you know?”

“It’s just a letter,” she snapped.

And Evelyn was so animated, so in her element, that I didn’t have the heart to argue with the plan. As the week went on and she crossed off houses, talking to Nicole over the phone and tightening her net, she slowly recovered from the effects of too much magic. She got her strength and energy back, pouring it into the hunt. She stopped coughing up blood and wincing whenever she sat down, stopped having to lean on Praem just to get up the stairs. I wasn’t about to interrupt her progress.

Besides, I wanted to find Edward Lilburne too. I wanted that book — needed that book. My sister was on a time limit, so almost any risk was worth taking. When the days stretched out into a week and almost every house was crossed off with angry red on Evelyn’s board, I privately began staring at that Ordnance Survey map. I hadn’t been able to define an entire city with hyperdimensional mathematics, but this patch of countryside, it was so much smaller.

But when I brought it up with Evelyn, she told me to wait for Edward’s inevitable response, his unwise move, his tipped hand.

And she turned out to be right. She’d met the man once, while he’d worn another person’s face, but her read on him was perfect. The letter came on Tuesday morning, hand-delivered by special courier, from the offices of Harold Yuleson.

She called Twil over right away. We needed to discuss strategy.

So all that week, I didn’t ask Evee about what she’d said, down in Hringewindla’s shell. I didn’t want to distract her. Or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I was right about one thing; I am a terrible coward.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A letter from a monster, filled with lies and misdirection. Or is there a grain of truth buried in the bile? Evelyn seems to think so, and she’s the one matching wits with Edward Lilburne. I wonder how Lozzie feels about all this. Surely they must be close to identifying his house, his lair, his secret laboratory. But what to do when they find his bolt-hole? Maybe Raine’s suggestion about bombs isn’t far off being a good idea. And there’s other things to deal with too, like wayward cultists and difficult doll-ladies … 

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Next week, what on earth is Evelyn actually trying to do here? What’s her plan? And how is she to sort truth from lies?

18 thoughts on “pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.1

  1. …… Dating Lozzie seems like a crime…… Lozzie x Jan is so cute though…… Can’t wait for the talk between Heather and Lozzie, whenever Heather gathers up the courage. Might actually help clarify what is going on between Lozzie and Jan.

    Evelyn tries to be so cold and calculating all the time, but her warm side sometimes shows. Evelyn and Heather were like awkward mothers worried about little Lozzie. Heather and Evelyn are in relationship in all but name and clarification at this point. They really need to have that talk. Heather x Evelyn!

    Hahahaha, pervy Heather is too cute. Zheng and Raine like to tease her, but if Heather ever embraced her pervasive side she would top them so hard, hahaha! Top Heather! (Or would it be toping from the bottom……. That phrase always confused me but sounds great. Tried looking it up but well…. If someone could explain it that would be nice.) Zheng x Raine! Zheng x Raine x Heather!

    Heather x Sevens! Just cause she is an Adorable Blood Goblin / Mommie Dommie Princess.

    Edward isn’t just paranoid but delusional. Is Amy Stacks dead? Did Edward kill her?

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • Lozzie x Jan is very cute! But we don’t know what they’re actually up to, if it’s romantic or just a growing friendship. Perhaps Heather should find out, sooner or later. She needs to go talk to Jan regardless, since she still hasn’t told her off for getting everyone high.

      Evelyn is so sweet beneath the surface, but she does enjoy being the cold calculating strategist at times too, she’s even good at it. She and Heather really do need to talk though, they’re practically acting like a couple already, kind of.

      Hmm, that is a very good question, is Heather a true top or bottom? Well, it seems to vary depending on who she is with at the time. I could see her topping from the bottom, though, sure.

      Is Edward delusional, or is he just being very devious?

      And you are very welcome for the chapter, glad you enjoyed it, thank you!

      • Lozzie is firmly over 18! I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that in comments before, but Lozzie is absolutely an adult, in the context of the story.

      • Not that I remember. Mostly it is Heather mentioning she is not sure about Lozzie’s age but assuming she is probably legal.

        Also I was referring to her mentality when I said it would feel like a crime. Cute in fiction but probably a crime in reality.

    • That sounds like a very Lozzie plan, actually, though with the added sting of the doll being possessed by something that eats his face. Maybe that’s Zheng’s contribution.

  2. Hard to believe the timid Marmite is the same creature that terrorized a family!

    What an infuriating letter! Kind of a masterpiece of patronizaton. But, could it be true the parasite wasn’t from him? Maybe Edward himself is being used by forces he doesn’t understand!

    • In a way he wasn’t the same creature. Back then he was being remotely controlled by Edward, his brain hijacked. Now he’s just sort of lost, poor thing.

      Maybe he was lying, maybe he was deflecting, it’s hard for Evee (or us) to tell for certain. Is he just a puppet in a larger game?

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